Stiff or Flexible… what kind of tennis racquet is best for you? Thanks to Fred Drilling for sharing the explanation below, which he described as “Best article I’ve ever seen!”
What is Powerful?
Written by equipment guru Jon Levy for Tennis.com…
Defining a racquet as “powerful” based solely on its stiffness rating can be misleading. There are other specs involved—weight, distribution of mass, string pattern and set-up, length of frame—that will certainly affect a racquet’s power potential. Perhaps your friend’s racquet is much lighter than yours, or possesses a thicker beam that you couldn’t maneuver as quickly. But the general rule of thumb is that firmer racquets tend to lead to bigger hitting.
First, for those unfamiliar, the flexibility of a racquet is determined by its RA rating. This is typically measured with an expensive piece of equipment such as a Babolat RDC (racquet diagnostic center) machine. The range for most commercial racquets is from around 60 (lots of flex) to 73 (rigid). Manufacturers may put this rating on the frame, but it’s easily accessible at knowledgeable retailers or online at sites like Tennis Warehouse.
The basic reason why frame stiffness impacts power—don’t expect a sophisticated physics lesson—is energy transfer. At contact, all frames bend somewhat; the more flexible the more energy it absorbs. If the ball stayed on the string bed for the entirety of the frame’s return to stasis, all that potential energy would be transferred into the shot. (Think Wile E. Coyote landing in a bendy palm tree and then getting flung into oblivion). However, a tennis ball remains on the strings for a fraction of a second and leaves before the frame fully rebounds. So, all other things being equal, a stiffer frame bends less and transfers more energy into the ball than one with more flex.
A firmer racquet also provides a more uniform hitting surface with a higher margin for error. The user doesn’t have to center the ball as precisely to produce a workable shot. For me, this is one of the more noticeable differences—mishits aren’t punished as severely and typically land deeper in the court. A flexible frame can have more “dead” spots on the string bed, especially on off-center hits. Make contact outside the sweet spot and there’s a greater probability the ball flutters with less pace and depth.
This is also why flexible frames are conventionally thought of as being more control-oriented. Which, like power, can be a bit misleading since the racquet itself won’t produce more accurate shots. But players with fast swing speeds—the type who want little help from their frames when it comes to hitting with pace—feel they can take their customary cuts on the ball with less concerns of overhitting. This trait can often be shaded by user ability. Players with slower swing speeds who don’t hit the ball as cleanly may actually perceive a stiff frame to have more control simply because the added power helps them get shots over the net more consistently.
From a safety standpoint, because they bend and absorb more shock on impact, flexible racquets are generally considered more arm-friendly. Stiffer frames pass more vibration to the hitting arm and have been known to inflame joints. Players with elbow and wrist issues tend to welcome the trade-off of lesser power for improved arm health.
But perhaps the starkest contrast between stiff and flexible frames—and easily the most subjective—is comfort. Some players find stiff racquets to be too harsh; other find them crisp and responsive. Fans of flexible frames deem them plush, with a buttery feel; detractors label them mushy. In my role as equipment editor, I’ve seen testers refer to frames with an RA in the low 60s as “overly firm” and others owning something in the 70s as having a “soft” response.
In other words, regardless of any stiffness rating, or perceptions of power, control and comfort, the only measurement that really matters is how a racquet feels and performs in a player’s hand. And there’s only one way to figure that out.
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